Photo by Heather Welch

The Interview: Matthew Heaggans

Matt Heaggans is the most divisive chef in Columbus. When not getting into heated political debates on social media, he can be found critiquing just about any aspect of the local food scene, including the media tasked with reporting on all things Columbus gastronomy. And this divisiveness, what some might call a contrarian streak, even extends to his own food. Take for example his chocolate pasta, a now trademark dish that has seen several incarnations during his tenure cooking in Columbus. It’s a dish that has drawn equal parts passionate praise and cutting critique from diners and food writers alike. “I’ve been working on the chocolate pasta for years. And I have people, people who ate the first version of the dish that liked it. And I feel like it’s gotten pretty close to the best it can be. We take a high acid coco and we make cheese out of it and we take that cheese and make the pasta. And it’s a three-day process. So, changing something like that isn’t like turning a sports car. It’s like turning a bus. It took us a little time to get it right. But I think it’s right. I love that dish right now. I’m not going to say it’s my aria, because that sounds a little dramatic, but as far as the execution of that dish, I’m not interested in changing it anymore.”

But change the dish is exactly what Heaggans has recently been advised to do, not by the ownership of The Rossi, where this most recent version is being served, but by an uncharacteristically “sharp” review in a local online publication. While not totally uncommon, negative criticism of a restaurant is definitely not the norm in Columbus. And this particular review is noteworthy because for the last few years Heaggans has been publicly railing against the state of food critique in the city. The gist of his position is that Columbus food criticism lacks any real teeth and that when all restaurants, deserving or not, receive positive reviews it renders all critique meaningless. So, when many people in the food community read his latest review the reaction was to say that he was asking for it.

“I did [ask for it]. I’ve been painting a target on my back for years. And that’s why I’m doing my best to not be shitty about it. I think we need it. I just think it needs to be done well and there is some evolution that needs to happen with that publication.”

But it is clear at times that despite his well-measured deference, Chef Heaggans still feels the sting of the review.

“When I’ve talked about the review I didn’t want to say ‘Don’t ever call me about anything’ because I’m trying to be a big boy about it. Its not like ‘Hey, I hate you. If you ever call me about anything I’m just going to say no.’ I didn’t want to do that. And I still don’t want to do that. But I still feel that way. If they called me tomorrow and wanted to come in and do something [at The Rossi] I don’t know how’d I’d feel about that, because our last interaction felt a little sharper than I felt like was fair.”

Things weren’t always so contentious for Heaggans. A few years ago he was overseeing a growing empire of much loved local food businesses and seemed poised to take over the city as our next great restaurateur. The Swoop! Food Group at its height encompassed the food truck of the same name, Crepes a la Carte, a gourmet cart serving the delectable French favorite, and Bebe at the Hey Hey, a much lauded pop-up restaurant inside the storied Merion Village dive. And then, in October of 2014, with little more than a cryptic Facebook post, Heaggans announced that he was shuttering them all.

“So I started the food truck with $50,000 from a really nice lady named Inga that I met in D.C. that took a really big chance on me. And I send Inga $200 out of every paycheck now, chipping away at this number, until one day I can pay her back. And it wasn’t enough money when I opened, and I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t what was in my budget. I had written this business plan and it called for a lot more money, but I just couldn’t get it together. And I was like ‘If things go really really well from day one this will be fine. We’ll make it up.’ And in a lot of ways, things did go well, but in a lot of other ways, not as well. We just never had the consistent volume we needed to make a go of it. I think I was naïve about what I thought the reception would be.”

After the experience of starting and ultimately closing his own businesses, Chef Heaggans found himself unsure of his next move, unsure of where his new culinary home would be. He ultimately found a place at The Flatiron, the triangularly shaped chop house that borrows its name from its more famous architectural cousin in New York City. Accepting the role of sous chef, the kitchen’s second-in-command, Heaggans found himself, for the first time in years, in a non-executive position. “Being able to make decisions, if it’s a good decision or a bad decision, when you make the decision you live with it. And that’s what it’s like to work for yourself. When you work for someone else, you don’t get to make all of the decisions. So sometimes you have to live with decisions that you’re not happy with. And that’s challenging, because I believe that if you focus on the customer the rest will fall into place; I really believe that in a really deep part of myself. And I can guarantee that I won’t always work for people who feel the same way.”

After a little over a year with The Flatiron, Heaggans was again ready for a change. Eager to be back in control of his culinary destiny he accepted the head chef position at The Rossi, a Columbus institution and tentpole of Short North dining. He was quick to find that while he would be allowed some creative flexibility, taking over a kitchen at such a well-known and well-liked restaurant came with its own restrictions. “When I got to The Rossi, my boss was like ‘This food you do not mess with. This other food you do not mess with. This food? You can kind of mess with, but you probably shouldn’t mess with.’ Honestly, I’m serving some food that I’m not really that crazy about, but it’s food that people have been going to The Rossi to eat for a long time.”

That isn’t to say that Heaggans doesn’t believe there isn’t a place for his style of food at The Rossi, he just understands that sweeping changes aren’t always the best way forward.

“This whole thing has been about having a dialogue with people and getting trust. And getting enough trust that people know that when they come to eat your food they’re going to get good food so that when they show up and you don’t have that short rib thing that they had last year, it’s okay, because you have something else that’s just as good. You build trust so that people know that no matter what they’re going to have a good time.”

With so much tribulation and difficulty one must ask what keeps Chef Heaggans in Columbus, when his adventurous take on cuisine might be better received in a city with a more mature food scene.

“When I left [Columbus] and moved to D.C., my plan was always to come back. When I came back, almost from the day I came back, I’ve argued with myself about how good of a decision that was. I have family here, I have people I care about here. But I love Columbus. I came back with the intention of helping to move the food scene along and I’m trying to reach that goal. And I don’t know if I will always be here, but I know that it wasn’t random. Columbus felt like the place where I needed to be. I’m here because I’ve made some inroads, I’ve made some progress.

I’ve changed some minds and gotten some people on board with what I’m trying to do. I’d love to be here long enough to see it all the way through. I’m also not 20-years-old. So, what I’m saying is that if Popeye’s Chicken was like ‘Hey! We need an R&D chef!’ I’m outta’ here! Dude, I’d take that Popeye’s money in a second.”

And while the specifics of his future here in Columbus remain a bit murky, his guiding principal of staying true to self and an unrelenting commitment to his personal creative vision remains as steadfast as ever.

“Right now, what I see ahead is what I want. It’s still kind of out there in the ether a little bit, I’m still trying to pull it together. Right now, I just want to make my food.”